Fatherhood

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Fatherhood

Fatherhood seems to be big news at the moment. Books and articles are multiplying, and there has been a steady increase in interest in fathers’ work from family support agencies. A number of projects have successfully developed work with fathers, but there is still a pervasive sense that work with fathers – though desirable- is hard to get off the ground and sustain, and uncertainties about the aims and methods of this work. How far should the work focus on the support needs of fathers, and how far on challenging oppressive or abusive behaviour? Is a non-judgmental stance consistent with a ‘critique’ of masculinity approach? Do fathers need a group to help them develop the sort of support networks women find very useful? What sort of families will not benefit from family support services? This article describes one organisation’s first steps towards addressing these issues.

NEWPIN was started in 1982 in Walworth, SE London as a response to the growing incidence of child abuse there, and the feelings of isolation and depression of local women with young children. Since then, NEWPIN has developed into a network of 16 daytime centres with an enviable reputation for helping to break the cyclical effects of destructive family behaviour by supporting adults and pre-school children who have suffered emotional and physical abuse. However, despite a commitment that anyone who has had, or is the main carer for, a child is welcome to join NEWPIN, this success story has not extended to fathers. Not that is, until recently…

Aims and Development of the Project

About four years ago, some senior NEWPIN staff wanted to find a way to offer men some of the services available to women – but recognised early on that a major cultural shift would be necessary within NEWPIN if it was to become a service genuinely available to men. They recognised that the lack of support for men to develop positive, close relations with their children was a major social problem that had damaging consequences for the whole family. But NEWPIN itself was experienced as a safe and supportive space by women (many of whom had been abused by men) partly through the absence of men. This absence implicitly supported the construction of men as a threat to both women and children, and as essentially peripheral to the process of rearing young children.

NEWPIN’s Fathers and Families Project was conceived as a way to give men greater understanding of – and support in – their role as carers of children, so that they could make permanent improvements in their family relationships. Any man with an important role in caring for a child was eligible to join. The only requirements were that they wanted to make some real improvements in their relationship with their children, and that they would be able to make use of the type of group we were developing.

In early 1997, we decided to do a large mail-out of leaflets and posters to the local statutory and voluntary sectors, health, social and community organisations. Our publicity said the group was about sharing experiences about being a dad, feeling good about the time you spend with your kids, and improving your relationships with your family. Initially, we received a few enquiries, and there was a point at which we were quite despondent about getting it off the ground. We wondered whether the reference to "improving" relationships with children, and the implications that it was for men who "needed support", might turn men off because it involved an admission of weakness/inadequacy. But, as I met or spoke to local agencies, referrals grew.

I focussed personal contact on Social Services, probation, court welfare, health visitors and drug/alcohol agencies. Most agencies expressed enthusiasm for the project, but said that they had little active involvement with fathers. Also, because working with fathers was often not high on their agenda, the project tended to slip out of workers’ minds unless I reminded them regularly!

Many agencies presented an image of fathers being unwilling to make use of services (e.g. because they might be uncomfortable about a group that involved intimacy and personal disclosure). Probation and Court welfare had regular contact with many fathers, but made no referrals at all – they said this was because the men were often concerned about problems with contact arrangements, rather than with improving their relationships with their children; and that they would not want to make a commitment to a group for as long as 8 months. My impression (from talking to fathers that I made contact with) was that this image of ‘unwilling’ fathers was simplistic. Many fathers are wary of services for families and do not expect them to be supportive to fathers. They also have limited experience of supportive, intimate relationships with family or friends. For these reasons, successful referrals were often the result of active and sustained encouragement by the referring agency, and then by project workers.

By the time the group started in September 1997, we had received 32 referrals. The bulk of the referrals came from social services, voluntary sector agencies, word of mouth from women attending NEWPIN and solicitors. Half dropped out before we interviewed them, and the turning point was face to face contact at the assessment interview. We worked hard to establish trust by giving a clear message that the group would be a place where their experiences, feelings and aspirations as fathers would be taken seriously. After accepting a man into the group, one of us also met them every 4-6 weeks to provide support until the group got going. Five more men dropped out post-interview, four of them single fathers – two of whom said they could not find anyone to undertake childcare for the weekday evening of the group (and in one case would not accept someone they did not know). Both these men were Afro-Caribbean.

Membership and Content of the Group

There were seven regular attenders at the group, two referred by Southwark Social Services, two by voluntary sector agencies (including one drug rehabilitation project), one by a solicitor, one by word of mouth by a NEWPIN Centre, and one who attended an earlier pilot group. None of them was a partner of a NEWPIN woman.

Out of all the fathers who could have attended, why these ones? Prior experience of a significant amount of intensive, therapeutic work (e.g. in drug rehabs) was strongly correlated with the likelihood of a father attending the group. No fathers living in stereotypical nuclear families (i.e. two parents with their genetic offspring) were in the group. Of the five resident fathers, two were living in ‘reconstituted’ families with both genetic and stepchildren, and the other three were lone parents. There was a strong threat of both parents having difficulties that made it hard for them to parent effectively. Of the six living mothers, five had patterns of chronic alcohol/drug abuse, or moderate/serious mental health problems, Nearly all the men were feeling depressed, or severely depressed, at interview, and had a long term manic-depressive condition. Four of the men have had severe drug/alcohol problems in the past. Five of the men reported serious childhood physical abuse from their fathers, and the other two had fathers with serious alcohol problems.

There is no clear link between employment status and interview / group attendance. About half of the group were in some form of paid work. The attenders were spread fairly evenly across an age range of 34 – 47 years. This is particularly striking, as over 70% of fathers have their first child before the age of 30 (FPSC 1997); our group clearly failed to reach younger fathers. The ethnic composition of the group was also significant: four of the regular attenders were white British, one Italian, one Jewish and one Turkish Cypriot. We only interviewed two Afro-Caribbean men, and neither of them attended.

The group was co-facilitated by two project workers, and ran for 35 weekly sessions of two and a half hours split into ‘educational’ and ‘therapeutic’ sections. In the first section, we covered such issues as masculine identity, relationships with our own mothers and fathers, aggression and violence, communication and problem solving with adult partners, children’s physical and psychological needs, valuing ourselves as fathers, etc. We also met three times at weekends with our children for lunch and play activities. The men in the group seemed to like having the structure that a weekly discussion topic provided, and were not put off by the personal nature of the subjects. This is well illustrated by the goals the men themselves identified for the group at the outset, including sharing experiences and feeling less alone, gaining confidence as a parent, exploring the impact of their upbringing on their parenting, learning to look after themselves and not have unrealistic expectations of themselves as a father, understanding their children better, learning how to control angry feelings, and getting advice on how to handle difficult situations.

The ‘therapeutic’ section was conceived as a less structured space, where the men could explore their feelings in more depth, both about the discussion topic and other issues of importance to them. In practice, there was a lot of overlap between the sections, and we did not hold the group rigidly to a pre-set agenda if something else seemed more important. We were surprised by how quickly the group discussion took off – they quickly felt that it was a non-judgmental and supportive space to both the structured/educational and ‘therapeutic elements of the programme. Several of the men expressed a desire for two sessions a week.

The group ended in April 1998. The men valued it highly and most of them said they had made significant changes in their staff relationships with their children. Some of them didn’t want it to end – they felt they still had a lot more to gain. Most of them learnt some ways of relating to their children which were different from their own parents’ behaviour – shouting and hitting less, remaining calmer, listening more. They felt less bound up in feelings of anger and shame about the past, more confident, more open with their feelings, and were more aware of their children’s needs. The men developed well in their ability to seek support within the group, and worked through very painful feelings about whether the group cared for and respected them. They also built supportive relationships with other fathers outside the group, e.g. via use of phone network (although this was not easy for them, and the project workers remained their principal sources of one-to-one support outside the group). The group is planning to go away for a long weekend with our children over the summer.

In retrospect, it seems important that the two project workers – a woman and a man – spent a lot of time in advance discussing their feelings and attitudes about fatherhood and masculinity and working in a group. By the time the group started, we knew each other quite well, and trusted each other. Above all, this helped us to provide a safe space for the men, and a model of how a man and a woman can negotiate and co-operate effectively. They trusted us to work well together. Some of the men felt less comfortable with a woman at first because of their own poor relationships with women. Others found it harder to open up with me because they still felt scared of their fathers’ abusiveness and authoritarianism. But these projections about the men’s mothers and fathers were worked on within the group. For example, in one session, one of the fathers broke down, and it was me that talked him through it and hugged him. It affected the group profoundly to see a man take on this nurturing role. In discussion, it was clear that most of the other men had wanted to do the same, but felt unable to do so; they were left with feelings of guilt and discomfort that we talked through.

The presence of the female worker produced some initial reticence about sexuality and attitudes to women, but after some time we managed to talk about this openly. After that, it was easier to acknowledge ambivalent feeling towards women (both hostility and idealisations), and, as a result, become more aware of the men’s relationships to their fathers as authority/care figures, and the implications for their own identity.

Future Developments

We plan to repeat this group in the autumn, when the fathers of the first group will act as befrienders for the next group (we are offering them further training sessions and supervision for this role). Ideally, we would like to see a fathers’ programme in all existing and new NEWPIN centres. Initially, this would probably involve reproducing the separate evening format of the recently finished group. ILPS and other agencies have stressed their view that many fathers would only be attracted by a programme that is relatively short in duration, and available without a prolonged waiting period; so we also envisage setting up shorter, less intensive fathers’ support groups (e.g. in contact centres), which would be free-standing modules and drop-in groups, as well as a gateway to the longer programme.

Eventually NEWPIN will also have to decide whether to integrate fathers more fully into its centres’ daytime programmes. The men in our group would certainly welcome it. . Integration would provide greater opportunities for direct working with the men’s children, and encourage men and women to work on their preconceptions about the opposite sex. It could also help men feel more marginal and unconfident as father, by being treated on a similar basis to women in NEWPIN; and by working on attitudes/feelings of low confidence as a father that can be highlighted by the presence of women (e.g. many men feel that women are better parents and know more about childcare than they do). NEWPIN women could work on becoming more assertive and confident with men in a safe space.

But there are dangers to integration too. Introducing men could make women staff and clients feel less safe. Some men might be put off by the daunting prospect of coming into a predominantly female space, or might feel marginalised and swamped. Men might find it harder to show their vulnerable side and explore their masculine identity at a NEWPIN centre where women are around. Some men and women might feel less confident in their parenting if they felt under the watchful gaze of people of the other sex. Healthy integration would need to find a way of men, women and children relating that respects everyone’s needs for safety, separateness and individuality, whilst at the same time stressing the importance of communication and negotiation. Together yet separate?

David Bartlett is now analysing the experience of the last group, in order to inform the future development of fathers’ work at NEWPIN centres. He would welcome any comments on the work described above, or details of other similar projects, and can be contacted at National NEWPIN, Sutherland House, Sutherland Square, London SE17 3EE (tel. 0171-732 6316)

 


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